Dave Roberts said all the right things as he was being introduced as the newest manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, talking about grit, individual accountability and the only thing Dodgers fans truly care about—ending a nearly 30-year championship drought.
“I think everyone in a Dodger uniform and in the fanbase (wants) to win a world championship," he told reporters (via Jon Weisman, the team's director of digital and print content). "That’s first and foremost, and I think we’re all excited about that, and that’s the goal. There’s obviously a lot of work that goes toward that.”
While there are literally hundreds of choices that Roberts will have to make along the way for that goal to become a reality, his decision-making process in regard to three specific areas will ultimately make or break his first year at the helm.
How He Manages the Bullpen
Perhaps none of Roberts' decisions will be scrutinized as closely as those he makes when it comes to managing the bullpen, something that was always a point of contention during former manager Don Mattingly's tenure.
While acknowledging that he'll have to remain flexible, Roberts tells Weisman that his plans for the pen on any given day will be formulated before the first pitch, after consulting with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and bench coach Bob Geren:
It’s obviously going to be my decisions, but there’s going to be some input and some dialogue. But I think a lot of the dialogue is going to happen before the game. I like to have matchups and ideas of potentially the different ways (the game) could play out beforehand, and see what kind of direction I like to go.
Then obviously, you’ve got to pay attention to the game and see how that goes and how that develops. I think the manager-pitching coach relationship is very important to managing a bullpen, and obviously listening to the bench coach’s input as well, but ultimately those decisions are going to fall on me.
The Dodgers return the bulk of a bullpen that pitched to the National League's fifth-highest ERA (3.91) in 2015, adding only Joe Blanton to the mix. But it's a group that also tied St. Louis' bullpen for the NL's third-highest WAR (4.5), one of the 10 best in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs.
There's talent there, besides All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, and it's the team's belief in that talent that led the Dodgers to not make a major addition to the group after they walked away from a deal for Aroldis Chapman.
Andrew Friedman on lack of changes to #Dodgers bullpen. "So much of it is we’re big believers in Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia and Chris Hatcher"— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) January 31, 2016
The pressure is on Roberts, Honeycutt and the rest of the team's coaching staff to get the most out of that trio—and anyone else they might call upon in relief.
With no track record to look back on, it's impossible to know exactly what his tendencies will be, whether he'll pitch his most trusted relievers into the ground early or spread the workload around evenly in an effort to keep everyone fresh.
However Roberts decides to utilize his bullpen, the results will make it pretty easy to determine whether he made the right call or not.
How He Handles Yasiel Puig
If we were to create a list of the most naturally gifted players in baseball, Yasiel Puig would be right at the top of that list, likely behind only Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. But sometimes, the most talented among us are the most difficult to relate to, to get along with.
So it's no surprise that Puig has had his fair share of issues, whether it be teammates getting on him about what appeared to be lackadaisical play or his manager questioning just how injured he actually was.
"For me, it's more of 'let's wipe the slate clean and let's start anew,'" Roberts told Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times about his first meeting with the polarizing star. "There's the same core of players, but there's a completely different coaching staff. And we just want him to be himself. So let's start fresh."
That fresh start is exactly what Puig needs, according to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who believes that Roberts, who has a reputation for being a people person, is the right manager to bring the very best out of the Cuban sensation.
"From my experience, Puig responds well to genuine people, when he understands there's no agenda and people just really care for him," Gonzalez told ESPN's Mark Saxon.
As long as Roberts decides to be straightforward with Puig—whether he's praising him, disciplining him or providing some constructive criticism—those past issues will be nothing more than a distant memory.
How He Changes the Clubhouse Culture
Growing up in a military family—his father, Waymon, was a United States Marine—Roberts spent his childhood bouncing around, forced to acclimate himself to new places and make new friends, often from different backgrounds and cultures, wherever his dad was stationed.
That's much like the situation he'll encounter in Los Angeles' clubhouse, a melting pot for players from different parts of the world, with varying degrees of experience and their own, individual expectations about what the coming season will hold.
"The No. 1 goal ... is for us ... to create an unbreakable bond within the group," Roberts told McCullough. "Where no distractions ... get us away from staying together ... or getting our focus off track."
Everything can't be sunshine and rainbows all the time, especially over the course of a 162-game regular season. Bonds are going to be tested. Tempers will flare. Distractions are inevitable. How he decides to get the clubhouse to buy into his message will ultimately dictate how successful his first year is.
As he explained to McCullough, his message is clear.
"You can have all the money. You can have the highest payroll. You can have the best information. If you don't have the best team, you're not going to win."
One thing that could work in Roberts' favor is his longstanding relationship with Gonzalez, perhaps the team's most respected veteran leader, as the two were teammates in San Diego a decade ago.
If Gonzalez and the rest of the team's leaders not only buy into his message, but push it in the clubhouse when Roberts isn't around, his chances of success at getting everyone focused on the task at hand would increase substantially.
If not, it's going to make Roberts' job substantially harder—and the Dodgers season feel substantially longer. "That's the secret," he said of being able to build those bonds. "That's the question. Because if we have that, then everything else will take care of itself."
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